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What Is Cider Anyway?

Happy first day of Cider Week! Finally, I'm allowed to geek out about my favorite fall beverage all day, every day, without judgment. Sadly, cider can get a bad rap – but trust me, it isn’t just sweet alcoholic apple juice! 

So, to kick off my favorite week of the year, I wrote a little about what the heck cider is anyway and why I think it's so special:

HOW IT'S MADE

First thing's first: Cider is made from the fermented juice of cider apples, which are apple varieties that have been cultivated specifically for making into cider. They have certain characteristics (more on that soon) which make them desirable for fermenting into cider, but not for eating. Cider apples are quite different from ones you find at your greenmarket or grocery store. They are bitter and astringent – ever bite into a crab apple? Yeah, don't do that.

The cider making process turns out to be very similar to winemaking – just with apples instead of grapes. Both of these fruits happen to be perfect for creating structured fermented beverages as they share three important characteristics: 

  1. Acidity: A sharp, sour flavor like lemon.
  2. Tannins: A bitterness or astringency, which comes from the fruit’s stems, seeds and skin. You can detect tannins when you drink cider or wine by the drying sensation in your cheeks. 
  3. Sweetness: From the fruits’ natural sugars, which are converted to alcohol.

Unlike wine grapes, single cider varietals typically don’t contain all three of these properties, so to create a complex, balanced bottle it’s often necessary to blend several types of apples. 

Here’s how it works: In the fall, apples are harvested and the juice is pressed, then fermented with yeast, which can take days or months depending on climate and the maker. Once the fermentation is done, it’s time to bottle and enjoy! (Some makers go a step further and age the cider in wooden casks or barrels for additional depth of flavor.)

A LITTLE HISTORY

Did you know cider was the most popular drink for early Americans? Back in the 17th century, English settlers brought along apple seeds and planted them throughout New England. Bitter, sour apples quickly flourished and making cider became a thing.

Since water was a bit, um, unsafe back then, cider was actually drunk for hydration. (Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) Then German beer showed up in the 19th century, and, of course, Prohibition in the 1920s – all of this led to the decline of cider and the loss of many of the apple varietals that go along with it.

Thankfully, with the huge growing interest in small-batch food and drink in recent years, we’ve been experiencing a cider resurgence here in the U.S. Makers like Shacksbury and Aaron Burr are working to bring back the lost varietals and traditional ciders (which you can learn more about in this interview with David Dolginow, founder of Shacksbury).

ENJOYMENT

To experience what really makes cider great, drink it from a wine glass and pay close attention to the appearance and profound aromas. Yes, drink it and swirl it and smell it like you just got your hands on a bottle of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin. Trust me.

Plus, like wine, cider pairs exceptionally well with food because it’s low in alcohol and has balanced complexity. It is really the ideal year-round beverage. To uphold tradition, this fall I’ve been guzzling it down like water!

Here’s what I’ve been loving lately:

Dry Vermont Cider Pét Nat: A soft, easy-to-drink cider made in the Pétillant Naturel style (or “Pét-Nat” for short) meaning that the fermentation finishes in the bottle.

Gold Label Cider: It’s made in the traditional French méthode champenoise, which gives it a true Champagne style. It’s semi-sweet and light with a biscuity flavor.

Pom Pomme Cider: I love rosé, and this cider might as well be one. It’s a blend of early-harvest apples, pomegranate and hibiscus flowers, which results in a tart yet refreshing cider with an impressive complexity. 

Want to dive even deeper into the wonderful world of cider? Check out our indie cider collection and order a copy of Jeff Alworth's "Cider Made Simple: All About Your New Favorite Drink"If it’s possible to have a crush on a book, I have one on that one. You will too.

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